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How to Create Landscape Photos That Tell Stories

How to tell stories with landscape photography

When we consider photographs that tell stories, we immediately think of images that show people, often in a documentary or photojournalistic style. After all, people make for interesting stories, and telling stories through still photos of people can result in compelling art. But landscapes have stories, too.

Now, telling stories through landscapes can be tougher than telling stories through, say, photos of a busy street. But it can be done. As a landscape photographer, you can create a collection of images that tells a story about a place without using people as main subjects.

In this article, I explain my step-by-step process for telling the story of a landscape. I’ll show you how to pull the story out of the landscape, and how you can convey it effectively to your viewers.

So without further ado, let’s take a look at the first step in the storytelling process:

Step 1: Determine the story

How to tell stories with landscape photography

If you want to tell the story of a particular area, before you start snapping photos, you should think long and hard about what you want to convey, about what it is that you want to tell.

Often we go to a place and start making images based on compositional elements in the scene without thinking about what is important to the story first. But that’s putting the cart before the horse!

When I go to a new place, I often do a scouting trip first just to have a general look around and get a feel for the location. Then I do some research to find an interesting story. If the place is a park, why is it a park? Who made it a park? What is the history? What interesting things happen there now and in the past? Do any animals live there, and if so, which ones?

How to tell stories with landscape photography

Once you have some background, you can pick a story to wrap your photographs around. Note that each landscape location likely has many stories that you can tell, so don’t feel like you have to find the single story worth sharing. Pick a story that you’re passionate about, or that you want to explore in greater detail.

How to tell stories with landscape photography

Step 2: Do your first photoshoot with different focal lengths

Your first photoshoot will help you bring your idea together. Go back to the specific locations that had the most photographic potential from your scouting trip. While there, look for elements in the scene that relate to the story you’ve chosen, and start capturing some images.

This portion of your storytelling project should be experimental. Don’t get too attached to a specific lens; instead, try various focal lengths and see what you can capture.

I usually start with a wide-angle image that takes in the whole scene. Often I don’t end up using this photo in the final storytelling collection, but it’s important to my process of making the collection.

Once you have your photo that takes in everything, think about the most interesting things in the scene. Try to pick at least three things and then get closer to each one of them in turn. Make at least one photograph of each subject.

How to tell stories with landscape photography
How to tell stories with landscape photography

For example, when I went to the Salton Sea in California (a stunningly beautiful location that was created as a result of a human-made disaster), one feature that interested me was a layer of dead fish. But how do you make a good photograph of dead fish?

I started by making an image that took in the whole scene:

How to tell stories with landscape photography

Then I changed lenses so I could try a midrange focal length, and then I switched to an even longer focal length without ever moving from my initial position.

Then I started to get closer and closer to the dead fish, looking for elements of design such as lines and shapes along the way. That’s how I created images like this one:

How to tell stories with landscape photography

Each time I found something interesting, I tried to use different focal lengths to see how I could convey the feeling of the place in my photos.

I want to emphasize one thing: Make sure you photograph the details of the scene as well as the wider view. You can do this with a telephoto or a macro lens – but when you find a really interesting detail, get close to it using your wide-angle lens so you have an image with the interesting detail in the foreground that also includes the wider landscape.

Step 3: Do additional photoshoots with the best light

The next step is to review your image from the first shoot. Pick out your favorite images, and think about the kind of light that could make them better. Is there a subject with a great shape that would make an interesting silhouette? Is it transparent and might glow with some backlight? Would it create interesting shadows at a certain time of day? Would it look best with warm light during the golden hour? Does it need a dramatic sky?

How to tell stories with landscape photography

Whatever you come up with, plan to revisit the location when you have the best chance of getting the conditions you need to make your ideal shot.

Since the goal here is to create a collection of photos that tell a story, you’ll want to do this for each image you like. You may need to go back a number of times before you get all the shots you want, and that’s okay.

While this step can be time-consuming, the end result will be worth it!

Step 4: Put your storytelling collection together

With all the shooting out of the way, you’ll want to review your entire set of images from that location. Pick out compelling photos that do a great job of conveying the story that you identified in the first step of the process.

You may find that you have a photo that seems to tell the story in one fell swoop, but more frequently, you’ll want to display multiple images together for a full sense of the landscape. In my experience, having an interesting set of images that all tell a part of the story will create a larger impact than a single image on its own.

Whether you plan to display the photos on your wall, use them in a blog post, put them on your website, sell them to a magazine, or simply show your friends, take this selection process seriously. Do your best to convey as much of the story as possible, but avoid including too much. When in doubt, simplicity is generally best!

Here’s the collection of images that I assembled from my Salton Sea storytelling project:

How to tell stories with landscape photography

Go tell stories with your photos!

Telling stories of the landscape might seem difficult, but with the process I shared above, you’re bound to come away with a collection of photos you can be proud of.

Just make sure you don’t neglect any of the steps! The planning is just as important as the execution, and the clearer your ideas are from the start, the more focused you can be while photographing.

Have fun, and share your landscape stories in the comments below!

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Anne McKinnell
Anne McKinnell

is a photographer, writer and nomad. She lives in an RV and travels around North America photographing beautiful places and writing about travel, photography, and how changing your life is not as scary as it seems.

You can read about her adventures on her blog and be sure to check out her free photography eBooks.

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